I plan to (sometime) make a mid 1800’s outfit suitable for a wife of a man with a lower, but tolerably comfortable income, like a craftsman, clerk or lower civil servant. I prefer representing that social class, as high fashion is not my thing in real life; and though I can appreciate the beauty and workmanship going into fine period clothes (I love seeing the amazing outfits some of you talented ladies create), it’s just not me. I’m a simple woman of simple origins, and the sort of pretentions adopted by people of wealth and fashion does not agree with me. Besides, my little boy will be in tow to most events I ever go to, and that would seldom have been the case for a woman of the world in the past: she’d have had a nursery maid taking care of little Master B, while she herself was enjoying herself. I disapprove.
So anyway, the dress. In Sweden, and the rest of the world in the mid 1800’s, there were, not surprisingly, most often a difference in material, construction and accessories between the dresses of common women, and those truly able to follow what fashion dictated. I have stumbled on some difficulties in my research – the clothing of country women is tolerably well documented, but I can’t find much in the way of primary sources for the class I’m looking for. Some things may however apply to common women in both country and town, so I’ll write about what I’ve found. All pictures of dresses are from Digitalt Museum, and you can follow the links back to each dress. There are so many pretty dresses that I like, so I could hardly choose, and had to post several of them.
Material: From what I understand, in some countries it was common practice for women of all classes to buy ready made fabric at this time.
Here in Sweden, while ready made silks, fine wools and cotton prints were certainly available, many women still spun and/or wove their own cloth.
A woman weaving in the living room, her son pausing in his play to have a snack, and the lodger Josabeth Sjöberg (who did the painting – I’ll be writing a post about her later) copying music. This is in Stockholm, so even in the capital women where weaving at home, though this, 1838, is a little earlier than what I’m aiming for.
Women in service (at least in the country) mostly received pay in the form of food, lodging and wool/cotton/flax which they themselves had to spin, weave and sew into clothes. Home woven wools, cotton warps with wool (or even silk) wefts, and cottons can all be seen in extant dresses. Blends of materials in the weft can also be seen; wool, silk, cotton and linen may well be used in the same dress.
NM. 0105032 Cotton warp, wool and cotton weft, ca. 1855-65.
In wool dresses, solids are not uncommon. Many black dresses survive (though I didn’t like any of them well enough to post), as black was common for best dresses, including wedding dresses for women of smaller incomes.
If the warp is cotton, it’s often in a different colour from the weft.
NM.0107418 Blue cotton warp, reddish–purple wool weft, ca. 1850-65.
Checks and plaids are very common both in wool, cotton/wool and cotton dresses.
Sometimes a home made fabric could be handed in to be printed.
NM.0182337 Home woven, brown cotton warp, black wool weft, printed, ca. 1840-55.
It’s likely that a woman may have owned dresses made from both ready made and home woven fabric.
Construction Details: Most dresses are entirely hand sewn, but a few have some machine stitching. Like the fashionable dresses, the common women’s often have
– lined bodices and sleeves
– piped seams in the bodice
– dropped shoulders
– shoulder seams pushed back
– skirts pleated at the front and sides, but gauged, or more tightly pleated in the back
– faced hems
– darts in the bodice front (though most of the time only two)
– sometimes sleeves cut on the bias
– sleeves are cut with one or two seams, usually with one or two small tucks at the elbow. Some are rather tight, others wider and sewn to a cuff, or left loose and slightly flaring at the wrist. In the 60’s, coat sleeves begin to appear.
But while fashionable dresses usually had princess seams in the bodice back, the common women’s dresses have
– just two back pieces in most cases
– front closure (even in the 1840’s, when fashion called for back closure – very practical), with hooks and eyes, often lacquered black.
NM.0189270 Hand woven, warp in wool and cotton, weft in wool, cotton and linen, probably 1860’s.
– the opening continuing down into the skirt (no dogleg closure), but as an apron would have been worn by at least the country women, it did not show
– boning made of cane, if any was used. Some dresses are so heavily boned it’s doubtful any other support was used.
– an often slightly wider neckline than is common in at least the 50’s and 60’s
One can also see that some details may be present long after they’ve gone out of fashion, like fan front dresses in the 70’s (like in this picture).
I really love these dresses, and can’t wait to make one for myself! Well, actually I’ll have to wait, as I have neither the material, the money, nor the time to make one now. Sigh. Well, it does give me time for more research. Underwear and accessories worn by these women is of course also interesting, and essential, but I will post on that separately, as it’s in these details you can truly differ between a working class or lower middle class Swedish woman and, say, an American one. It’s also where I’ve found it most difficult to find information.
Edit; the post on Swedish common women’s mid 19ch century underwear can be found here, and the one on accessories here.